The least commercial music festival, relatively star-less, but groovy and sometimes funky, “Vilnius Jazz Festival” drives its fans mad with the wacky jazz “perversions” it has come to be known for every autumn.

This year, the extraordinary festival to be held on 15-22 October for the 27th time will send thousands of jazz fans to frenzy for European, US and Japanese jazz beats. The Lithuania Tribune sat down to talk about “Vilnius Jazz Festival 2014” with Antanas Gustys, its founding father.

With only days remaining until “Vilnius Jazz Festival 2014”, what do you reckon will be so special about it this year?

It’s pretty hard to come up with something new as it’s an annual festival. But I reckon the festival’s mission itself has been pretty much the same from the very beginning of the festival back in 1987, i.e., introducing the variety of the genre and particularly play out some modern jazz beats.

As much as we seek good coverage, we really aren’t attention suckers for headlines in any way. Some of the other festivals get a dazzling star signed up for a performance, and the rest of the musicians are reduced to second-rate satellites swirling about the star.

That’s not the idea of our festival. We are justifiably called a festival of discoveries, meaning we want to present and be a platform for big jazz names to-be. This is what makes us unique.

It’s a little secret that ther jazz festivals out there are pretty much preoccupied with commercialism – making money through catering to the crowds. That’s not us.

Our goal, as I said, is introducing new jazz forms and genres, as well as new promising jazz performers able to make the splash in the future.

In that sense, I’d say we’re extending the traditional perception of what jazz is.

As a rule, we always have some performers mixing up other musical genres in their performances, thus making the festival pretty “radical”, as I call it. We’ll have jazzmen who are outside the traditional box this year, too.

For example, we are eagerly looking forward to hearing a French jazz band that is known for niftily mixing up Jack Hendrix tunes in its programme. Or the things that, for example, Rubaton, a Dutch band, does on stage can easily pass as punk rock.

It goes without saying that we play only live jazz in our festival and encourage show other perception of what jazz is. We do that for a simple reason: jazz is a live river and we feel great seeing it streaming robustly. The worst mistake would be caging up ourselves in the “old”, dent-proof jazz “box”.

I’ve read you’ve been constantly trying to exhibit all the novelties of today’s jazz. Do the Japanese jazz performers you have been inviting to perform in “Vilnius Jazz Festival” do the job?

Antanas Gustys
Antanas Gustys
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

Yes, indeed, we’ve been seeing Japanese jazz performers at our festival for quite some time now, and this year will not be an exception. I really believe all those Asian jazz performers stepping on the Vilnius stage add a really nice flavour in the juicy hodgepodge of all the jazz forms that the guests from all over Europe and the United States make.

In fact, I’ve counted that over 27 years since the first “Vilnius Jazz Festival” we’ve had over 50 Japanese performers at the festival.

This year we’ll introduce a solo jazzwoman, Aki Takasae, and a band from Japan. The presence of Japanese jazzmen is definitely another distinctive feature of our festival.

Without flattery, the Japanese call Vilnius Jazz Festival their main jazz hub in Europe. It’s a really big recognition of what we do here.

How did you get involved with “Vilnius Jazz Festival”?

I’m a founding father of the festival, by the way. As I mentioned, the first “Vilnius Jazz Festival” took place back in 1987.

I remember that year I listened to Lithuanian jazz prodigy Viačeslavas Ganelinas performing in what is now the Presidential Palace. Back then, the building would host all kinds of art performers, but there were quite few jazzmen there, as far as I remember now.

Sure, a jazz star like Ganelinas would occasionally step onto the stage. But then, after Ganelinas’ last concert (he left for Israel), I felt pretty sad that the No 1 Lithuanian jazzman had left. With him gone, I couldn’t just let things go like that, so I resolved to launch a traditional annual jazz festival in the Lithuanian capital. There were then some other outstanding jazz men, too. First in my mind pops up Tarasovas, Cerkasinas and Vysniauskas, who were pretty known in Western European and some of the Eastern and Central European capitals. All the foreigners tended to think of Vilnius as of a jazz hub then, but that was far from truth. With Ganelinas gone, the future of jazz seemed quite fuzzy, frankly.

These were the circumstances that eventually led to the launch of “Vilnius Jazz Festival”, a reputable jazz event in all over Europe now.

I believe now we were off to a right start then, as we were getting together under one roof a variety of jazz performers, regardless of their background, musical affiliation and take on what I call “orthodox” jazz.

,I have never had doubt that I did a right thing from scratch starting inviting pretty much little known or unknown musicians able to show a spectrum of the genre’s stylistics.

How do you describe the situation of Lithuanian jazz on the whole? Is there anything to worry about, like “under-appreciation” of jazz, something that some of Lithuania’s top jazz executives pointed out to me in other interviews?

I really do not think that the situation is worth pessimism. For the ninth consecutive year we’ve been organizing a competition of young jazz performers, known as “Vilnius Jazz Young Power.”

I really rejoice over the exuberance and interest in jazz that many young jazz musicians out there show.

Specifically, I’d say we have an especially strong jazz team in the Balis Dvarionis Music School which constantly gets on the most prestigious concert and jazz stages in Lithuania and Europe alike.

Interestingly, most of the participants of the first “Vilnius Jazz Young Power Festival” continue being in the limelight as great musicians.

Not only in Lithuania, where they have been seen almost in every jazz event, but also on the European stage as well.

None of them have decamped abroad in search for a better life, and that tells a lot. Obviously, the young performers as a strong rivulet is already streaming, and, no doubt, will be flowing in the mainstream of Vilnius Jazz Festival.

Unfortunately, Europe doesn’t longer remember the late 1980s’ Lithuanian jazz virtuosos, but the youngsters are already successfully making their inroads into Europe.

What are the financial donors ensuring the longevity of the festival?

As I said, our festival is absolutely non-commercial and we cannot rely on the masses of onlookers and participants that other jazz festivals count on. What keep our festival’s foundation rock-hard are the foreign culture funds that support each participant. Even the Japanese who come over every year to Vilnius for the event are sponsored by a Japanese fund of culture. The Americans and the Europeans are not an exception. In that regard, the French culture can be disseminated and expanded most vastly, as all the French funds of culture render a big support for the purpose abroad.

Nevertheless, what could be done to better jazz situation in Lithuania?

The issue of support is not one-sided, I’d say. I believe the efforts should be directed to finding new talents. I tend to say that only one out of one hundred promising performers is a real talent. But he or she has to be nurtured and helped in order to see the bud turning into a bloom.

Generally speaking, Lithuania has quite a good educational basis and school, both on the secondary and high school levels. We do have quite a few European-level jazz festivals that can serve them as a launching pad to the European capitals and major jazz festivals. I reckon that only jazz management should perhaps be better organized in the country.

I mean that promising musicians ought to be better helped in making their dreams come true.

What are the Vilnius Jazz Festival’s main venues?

Traditionally, the main is Russian Drama Theatre. The acoustics there is really good. But the festival will be kicked off in the Piano.lt hall, also known for very good acoustics, by a trio of Czech jazzmen. The venue also serves as a main stage for many promising piano players, so definitely the onlookers also will see some piano players’ performance there. These two will be the main two venues, but some of the evening and night jazz concerts will be held in Soul and Pepper Club in Vilnius (Gedimino av. 9).

And, sure, a real pleasure will be seeing the Lithuanian jazz patriarch and national jazz prodigy Veceslavas Ganelinas.

I reckon he will not be very much reminiscent of the briliant past and will play some good Israeli jazz. He’s been living in Israel for 25 years now. Among other jazz notables I’d discern the vocalist Esti Kenan and percussionist Arkadij Grotesman, also “Piere Dorge-the New Jungle Orchestra.”

Can you promise any surprises this year for the audience?

Like every year, we will reward a musician for achievements for Lithuanian jazz. As far as I know, the nomination is still up for grabs, so the intrigue still remains there. So once again, I’d invite all jazz and all music lovers swing by the venues and have a good time.

“Vilnius Jazz Festival 2014”: least commercial, superstar-less, groovy and funky
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